Brush with Havel

Let’s Hear Your Havel Anecdotes! Everybody’s got one. Mine was already written once, by Greg McIlvaine. To loosen up your memory box, here’s a fine David Remnick essay in the New Yorker, a Paul Wilson National Post account of Havel’s last days, and some Guardian reminiscences from Timothy Garton Ash.

Matt Welch

Brush with Havel

san francisco
i was 25
passport burning a hole in my pocket
eurail pass deal changes at 26
told my boss i was taking 2 mos. off
would come back if welcome, or not.
they agreed to six weeks,
ultimately five weeks of which i got paid for
because of vacation and comp time.

also, my girlfriend had dumped me.

i planned my itinerary
amsterdam of course
germany france italy
plus the newly open eastern europe
warsaw, cracow? east berlin? sarajevo? dubrovnik?

my slavic languages and lit friend
getting their ph.d.’s at berkeley
recommended buda-pest and prague

one dave had been denied security clearance
to go to moscow as an undgrad (circa 1984)
one too many drunken marxist speeches by the keg
with a part-time cia informer in the crowd?

two weeks in amsterdam
bavaria, munich, and dachau

i always have a vacation inside each trip

italian riviera
cinque terra, riomaggiore

to marseille with the australian girl
doubling back 4 trains 23 hours
to vienna
a $10 sandwich in zurich train station halfway

stayed an extra week in vienna with
the girl from the train
she shared her chocolates with me
told me it was too late to get a hostel
invited me to her 18th century apartment

that week meant no yugoslavia later, no poland
but worth it

then budapest, weird experiences
written about elsewhere,
the highlight a rock festival
very hippy
a girl braided ribbons into my hair
only there a few days, not long enough

then to prague
staying with an artist friend of dave’s
best time of my life up to that point
stories of the recent past, the changes

how cops used to break up parties with loud music
but now they’d yell “it’s democracy!”
which he explained most people thought meant
anarchy, no cops, no more rules

communism worked for this artist guy
he had a job being an artist, a big apartment
with a big studio attached

he got to go to austria sometimes
to exhibit
to bring back hard currency

now he had to work freelance like
artists in the west
he loved reagan
pronounced nationalism nation-alism

took me to his brother’s wedding
at a church in the downtown square in prague
right by the clockwork tower

i still didn’t understand a word
except that no seemed to mean yes
beautiful wedding all the same

a joint passed around among the groomsmen
and guests outside under the clock
after the wedding

the reception at a hotel as we would do it
the artist and his brother and their family
was part of the old charter 77 group. ivan
klima was there. after it broke up
the party continued in a pub nearby.

havel showed up, with two tall bodyguards
one of whom had a long ponytail.

he sat at one of the tables and drank beer
with his old friends. people were arty
and acted nonchalant but there was
an electricity in the air.

i asked someone if they thought i could snap
a few polaroids of the president.
they said, sure, but when i stood up and
took a few flash shots the nearest bodyguard
sprang up and came at me.

my friends told him i didn’t speak czech.
they told me i should have asked permission
before taking the pictures.

it turned out the film got double-exposed
and none of those shots came out.

i stayed an extra week in prague too.
you could sense that this was going to be
the paris in the 20s for americans of the ’90s

in those days there was a newspaper in s.f.
called calendar magazine
that started off mostly as a list of events
maybe 8 pages
and evolved into the s.f. weekly,
now part of a phoenix-based chain.

back then i thought i had already missed a shot
by not going down and volunteering for calendar
when it was still small and starting up.

after my trip (east berlin, frankfurt, and home)
i thought about quitting my editor job in s.f.
moving back to prague
while you could still get 23 crowns to the dollar

and starting or joining a local english-language
newspaper. what a great idea!

but when i got back i also looked up
this other girl. i had a beard now.
my hair was long.
i was in my jesus/lennon phase.

the road not taken,
i fell in love
opted for an inward adventure
she tamed me some
maybe sooner than ideal for me
maybe later than ideal for her

great ideas are a dime a dozen
it’s the doing that counts

when i read matt’s blog sometimes
i feel like i’m looking into
a nearby alternate universe

this decision, not that
this branching, not that
no regrets
aside from the bittersweet awareness
the downside to every upside
the reverse to every obverse
a cockeyed optimism
new choices today
every day